Bringing Hercule Poirot back to life

The Mystery of Three Quarters is a skillfully constructed book with enough suspense in the pages to sustain readers’ interest, with several plausible explanations to keep them guessing 

RV Raman

When I heard that Agatha Christie’s estate had commissioned a new Poirot novel, I was torn. One half of me was irate. ‘Sacrilege!’ it fumed. ‘Why go digging up the little Belgian’s bones?’

But the other half of me was curious. ‘What if,’ it asked in a small voice, ‘what if the book manages to faithfully resurrect Poirot? Won’t it be wonderful to read another Poirot mystery?’

The first half was unyielding. ‘Fat chance!’ it snapped and turned away.

It had a point – most re-creations and continuations by another author have fallen short of the original, even if they have been commercial successes. They have seldom recreated the magic of the original.

That’s where matters stood until The Monogram Murders was published and I got my hands on a copy. I lacked the courage to open it, for once I did, I would pass a point of no return. Poirot would be reborn.

A few hours later, I was pleased. The new Poirot mystery had hit enough high points for me, even if the writing was not the same as Christie’s. Not everything worked for me, but I was content. As a die-hard Poirot fan, I could have complained and nit-picked, but I chose not to. There was a lasting disappointment, though. The new narrator who takes Captain Hastings’ place beside Poirot, jarred (more about this later). Unfortunately, he continued into the second book (Closed Casket) too, and with a larger role.

It was therefore with mixed feelings that I opened The Mystery of Three Quarters. It begins with Poirot being accused of sending letters to multiple people, accusing each of them of the same murder. Of course, Poirot had sent no such letters.

The book gets off to a swift start – something that’s not very common in the Golden Age Mysteries. With nicely written dialogues and descriptions, the first two chapters drew me into the book within fifteen minutes. These chapters are a good illustration of how to build intrigue without injecting undue violence or adding needless action.

Thereafter, the book settles down to a Christie like pace as characters are introduced and meshed into the plot. Several characters have their own peculiarities, and one thing the author does well is to pepper the pages with small inconsistencies in their behaviour that add to the gradually escalating intrigue, at least for the careful reader. As the story unfolds in London of February 1930, bits and pieces of information come your way. One at a time, the author offers clues, misdirection and red herrings. They are like little twigs – some plain, some crooked – that go into building a nest. They steadily accumulate and a nest takes shape; a potential mare’s nest.

Along the way, the author manages to build an atmosphere that is not unlike Christie’s (though not as powerful). There are enough peculiar, even warped, characters to suggest a range of strange possible outcomes to the reader’s imagination. Of course, there are things that do not ring true to Christie fashion, and these could jar die-hard Poirot fans.

For a moment, let me set aside the fact that this is a Poirot mystery, and take a look at the plot and the characters. I think Sophie Hannah has woven a nice, intricate plot that unfolds well and keeps up the intrigue. She throws small details at you (as Christie used to do), and links them up pretty well at the end of the book. As expected, there is more emphasis on character and motive than on physical evidence (Poirot vs Sherlock Holmes), and there are a couple of dark backstories.

After a vigorous beginning and a meaty middle, I had hoped for an engrossing climax. Unfortunately, the denouement disappointed on two fronts. One, it was not as convincing as I would have liked it to be. Motivations did not add up very well to justify character actions. Second, it was rather long-drawn. It meandered and took many pages to explain and to tie up the loose ends. Admittedly, it is difficult to succinctly resolve the many open questions a complex mystery throws up, and to bring the story to a quick end.

All in all, The Mystery of Three Quarters is a skillfully constructed book with enough suspense in the pages to sustain readers’ interest and several plausible explanations and keep them guessing. It is eminently readable, especially if you are a person who enjoys Golden Age Mysteries. However, a problem could arise when you begin comparing the book with Christie’s originals (after all, this is a Poirot mystery). For one, no two authors can have the same writing style. If you expect the original style in this book, you will be disappointed. While Sophie Hannah tries to stay true to Christie tradition, differences are bound to be there. Every now and then, Poirot’s words, thoughts and actions don’t ring true.

However, that is a small price to pay to be able to read a new Poirot mystery. At the end of the day, you get a good, solid mystery to sink your teeth into. And in addition, you encounter a Poirot who is not hugely different from the original.

Having said this, my old disappointment remains. Edward Catchpool, the Scotland Yard Inspector who replaces Captain Hastings as the narrator, dilutes the book. Those who have read Sophie Hannah’s earlier Poirot mysteries would know that some chapters are presented in third person and others in first person. The former follow Poirot, while the latter are from Catchpool’s point of view.

The parts that follow Poirot in third person flow much better, have more intrigue and bring out Poirot’s uniqueness better. They have more substance too. On the other hand, Catchpool’s first person narrative is desultory and distracting, and feel like information capsules. The Poirot presented through Catchpool’s eye fails to excite. Even the misdirection Catchpool attempts isn’t convincing. In my view, the book would have been better without this narrator.

I hope Sophie Hannah writes a few Poirot books without Catchpool. I would really look forward to that.

In conclusion, The Mystery of Three Quarters is a readable book that recreates the atmosphere of the Golden Age in good measure. The writing is accomplished, the plot construction skillful, and the characters are as one would expect in a Christie like novel. Sophie Hannah has done a commendable job. The book is good enough for me to buy the next one when it comes along.

(RV Raman writes crime fiction set in corporate India. Details are available at www.rvraman.com)

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